2015 Thomas Wolfe Prize: Clyde Edgerton
Not since Mark Twain has the South been blessed with a comic novelist as important as Clyde Edgerton. His voice is unmistakable: at once eloquent and down-home, hilarious and heartfelt, satirical and solemn. He writes, as The Los Angeles Times has said, “what James Thurber might have written had he lived in North Carolina.” With a perfect ear for Southern vernacular and a keen eye for social injustice, he skewers our cultural inconsistencies with love, humor, goodwill, and a searing wit. Author of twelve books, with numerous stories and essays to his credit, Clyde Edgerton has secured a spot in this most American of lineages: the literary humorist.
Though very much an American writer, Edgerton is a North Carolinian through and through, and writes fearlessly about the shortcomings and the strengths of those who call the Tar Heel State their home. Raised in the community of Bethesda, near Durham, he has written about small-town bigotry, religious hypocrisy, and greed—three of his most important themes—in a darkly comic vein, one comparable to that of Flannery O’Conner. “I believe humor is one of the human stays against chaos,” he has said. And also, perhaps, the best way of getting at the truth of the human experience. The magic of an Edgerton novel is its ability to show us how our lives are being lived, in all of their bewildering complexity, while we think we’re simply being entertained.
But then nothing is at it seems in his books. His first novel, Raney, may appear to be about the vicissitudes of a marriage; it is also about the Civil War, God, and racism. The Night Train, his most recent novel, is about an unlikely friendship; it also shows that music may be the only truly common language we have (Edgerton is an accomplished musician). While his fictional quarry stays at home—almost every one of his books takes place in North Carolina—the vision he brings to his stories is vast and the question he asks is a universal one: what happens to us when the old and established meet the new and unknown?
Clyde Edgerton has published ten novels, a book of advice (Papadaddy’s Book for New Fathers) and a memoir (Solo, My Adventures in the Air). The Night Train, his tenth novel, was published by Little, Brown in 2011. Three of his novels have been made into movies—Raney, Walking Across Egypt, and Killer Diller— and many more have been adapted for the stage. Among his awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship; honorary doctorates from UNC-Asheville and St. Andrews Presbyterian College; membership in the Fellowship of Southern Writers; and the North Carolina Award for Literature. Edgerton is the Thomas S. Kenan III Professor of Creative Writing at UNC-Wilmington. He lives in Wilmington with his wife, Kristina, and their children.
Ron Rash, who preceded Clyde Edgerton here as a Wolfe medal recipient, says of him: “ Clyde Edgerton is one of those rare writers who is every bit as wonderful off the page as on. He is a kind, generous man, and his novels have given North Carolina some of its very best literature. Clyde represents all that is best in our state’s culture and our people.” And UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and fellow North Carolinian Jill McCorkle writes, “His great compassion and respect for everyone in all walks of life merge time and time again to render complex, memorable characters. He can do anything.”